“No shit. Are you kidding? You’ve been to Iraq?”
“Wow, you don’t look like you’ve been in the military.”
“Oh, so you were raped, right?”
These are some of the questions Americans have asked the women veterans we spoke to when they returned home.
There are more than 2 million women veterans in the United States and Puerto Rico, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. That means women make up 9.4 percent of the total veteran population. By 2040, VA expects that percentage to almost double.
The veteran landscape is changing, and there is no one kind of woman veteran. They are entrepreneurs, LGBTQ advocates, government employees, single mothers, married women and national security experts, like Asha Castleberry.
“You’re going to see more of us, so you’re going to have to learn to deal with us more,” says Castleberry, an Army veteran who returned to civilian life in 2015.
Women in the armed forces
Women have served in the armed forces since the American Revolution, but they weren’t officially recognized as permanent members until 1948. Today, they are the fastest-growing cohort in the veteran community.
Nearly 280,000 women have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. The organization surveyed its female members and asked them to rate their level of agreement with the following statement:
The civilian public treats women veterans with respect.
Ten percent of respondents said they strongly disagreed, and 31 percent said they disagreed.
Allison Jaslow, IAVA’s executive director and an Army veteran, says many Americans expect veterans to be older and male.
“I don’t fit into the boxes people have in their head of what vets look like,” says Jaslow, who also spearheads IAVA’s #SheWhoBorneTheBattle campaign. She adds: “Me saying I’m a vet doesn’t get me credible recognition right off the bat.”
Change starts with a motto
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ motto is from President Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address in 1865:
This is what’s engraved on plaques at VA facilities across the country. Sure, it’s just a motto, but the signal it sends to women veterans stings: Care for the person who fought for our country — if it’s a man.
Changing the VA’s motto is a key component of the Deborah Sampson Act, named after a woman who disguised herself as a man to join the Patriot forces during the American Revolution. Introduced in March 2017 with bipartisan support, the act calls for improvements to services for women veterans.
The VA is improving, but it still has a long way to go
The Veterans Health Administration operates under the VA umbrella, and it was originally designed with the needs of men in mind. Women using VHA facilities dealt with privacy issues, and health-care services specific to women proved to be inadequate. In 1992, Congress passed legislation to address the “fundamental gaps in VHA care for women.” The directive ensured “complete physical examinations” for women inpatients, which included routine Pap tests, as well as pelvic and breast examinations.
Today, VA continues to improve, but it is still trying to win back the trust of women veterans who have had negative experiences.
Army veteran Maria Terry, who returned to civilian life in 2007, notes that the VHA facilities she’s used have been uninviting, overwhelming and outdated: “I don’t trust the VA. It gives me anxiety.”
They’ve added women’s clinics within larger facilities and created guidelines specific to women’s health care. Every VA medical center has at least one women’s health primary-care provider. Certain facilities do not have on-site gynecologists, leaving them less prepared for emergencies. Although the VA covers pregnancy care, it does not provide obstetrical services.
Army veteran Sara Poquette says she has seen VHA services improve over time, but they’ve varied across facilities. VHA provides care at 1,233 health care facilities, including 168 VA medical centers.
“I stayed away for a really long time,” Poquette says, “but it has gotten so much better.”
Women veterans are ready to work
Compared to the non-veteran population, women veterans are more educated. Almost 14 percent of women veterans have an advanced degree, compared to 10 percent of non-veterans. Approximately 49 percent of employed women veterans end up taking on managerial roles or working in professional occupations.
Women veterans outnumber non-veterans in government positions, but they are less likely to work in the private sector. Getting a job in the private sector can be tough at first, Navy veteran VaNiesha Honani says. Employers sometimes think veterans are used to being told what to do in the military, so they can’t think for themselves. Honani insists this isn’t true.
“We have to be ingenious,” Honani says of veterans. “We have to be self-sufficient.”
Mental health is key
For women veterans who face mental health issues, seeking help can take time, and working through past trauma is an ongoing process.
When De’Cha LaVeau returned home to Baton Rouge in 1999, she was a veteran, a single mother and an overachiever. She got a job in IT, went to college and raised her son. But for years, she didn’t sleep well. LaVeau was the victim of two attempted rapes during her Navy service. One incident occurred after someone broke into her room. Back home in Louisiana, LaVeau ended up dating men who were “protectors.”
“I was looking for a protector, but really, it was just a jealous guy who was beating the hell out of me,” LaVeau says. Outwardly, she remained put together, but after she found herself engaged to an abusive man, she reached her breaking point. She went to the VA and asked for help, but it would take years before she dealt with her PTSD. Talking about her trauma was like moving, LaVeau says: “You have to pack up all this heavy furniture, and you just dread it.”
More than 10 years after leaving the Navy, LaVeau went to a Vet Center for cognitive processing therapy.
“If you do not figure out what’s going on with you, you can never get to the root of the problem,” she says.
Although she’s a military sexual trauma (MST) survivor, Poquette urges people to avoid making assumptions about other women veterans: “It’s just putting a stereotype on women in the military.”
Kayla M. Williams, the director of the VA’s Center for Women Veterans and an Army veteran, agrees.
“There’s a lot more to my military experience than the possibility of sexual harassment and assault,” she says.
If you encounter a woman veteran, “know that we’re resilient, capable and strong, and so valuable to the greater picture,” Poquette says.
Veterans look out for each other
Terry joined the North Texas Women Veterans group on Facebook. On a particularly hard day, someone posted about a retreat. Terry went to a nearby cabin with a small group of veterans, and she felt a sense of relief.
Although her husband is supportive, he didn’t serve in the military. “I find myself dealing with things on my own,” Terry says. “Pushing through my anxieties, pushing through. I shouldn’t do it alone. Another vet will understand me way more.”
When Honani sees a friend is retiring from the military, she waits.
“Sure enough,” she says, “they’ll text me and say what do I do?”
Representation in pop culture matters
Although writer and actress Kate Nowlin can think of a few films in which veterans are female — including Demi Moore in “G.I. Jane,” Michelle Monaghan in “Fort Bliss and Meg Ryan in “Courage Under Fire” — she says “female veterans are woefully underrepresented in our pop culture.”
With this in mind, Nowlin teamed up with director Remy Auberjonois to write the script for “Blood Stripe.” In the film, Nowlin portrays “Our Sergeant,” a woman veteran who struggles to transition back into civilian life after she completes a third tour with the Marines in Afghanistan.
“It is my hope that this film can shed light on our returning service men and women who are struggling,” Nowlin says, “so we might work harder as a culture and a country to let them know we’ve got their backs.”